Josh Wilson – Officer, Royal Australian Navy

Josh Wilson – Officer, Royal Australian Navy


I was born down in central Victoria just in Bendigo, the eldest of four kids, two boys, two girls. My mum was a high school teacher, my father was a psychiatric nurse. They’re obviously now both retired. And I had a very standard, you know growing up in a country town, high school, cricket, rugby, yeah I went to university when
I finished high school in Bendigo and then joined the Navy. Not long after I finished university
I worked for a short period of time and then decided to join the Navy but I didn’t really come from a a military family in the sense that I had
serving members that I grew up around but I suppose I sort of just had a
natural interest in that side of it as well. So I did a standard sort of high school, you know, maths, science, did my HSC. Dabbled a bit and ended up doing
a business degree of all things, and worked for a very short period of time as an economist for about six months. And at the same time I finished university, I applied to come in as a direct entry officer so I was selected and went through HMAS Creswell which is the Naval College down at Jervis Bay. So I went there as a 23-year-old. Interestingly enough, not the oldest by long way. I think our median age on the intake was about 26. So yeah, six months at the Naval College and then I joined my first ship actually, which was one that was being refitted up in Newcastle, for just– in a bit of a holding pattern
and then I started my– my training. Actually it was while I was in that holding pattern
I got posted to Tobruk– HMAS Tobruk in ’99… no, that wasn’t, sorry, it was ’97,
the year that I joined. Sorry. And we ended up doing the first offload
up in Bougainville at the end of ’97 so as a very junior midshipman still waiting
to actually go off and do my training, I sort of got caught up on my first operational trip somewhere. And so even at that sort of stage the bug bites pretty hard. So we just– I mean I didn’t spend
a lot of time up there. We drive up, we dropped off the army when they did
their first lodgement at Bougainville. And then we came back you know, did my standard training as well.
We would call an Officer of the Watch so on my bridge watchkeeping training and posted to my first ship which was HMAS Anzac actually in a– in a billet or I train as an Officer of the Watch and and we, you know in those days used to do
a lot of time up in Southeast Asia and then as a trainee Officer of the
Watch in Anzac deployed to East Timor in support of what was then Op Warden. And the prelude into that East Timor in ’99. Look, it was really energising, I must admit. When you’re that young and stupid you don’t really think about much else other than “Wow, how cool is this?” It wasn’t till later deployments where you start worrying about other sorts of things but yeah and that time I can just remember it being– because no one had done anything like
that for a very long time in the Navy context. You know, the old and bolts were the guys who deployed to the Middle East in the early ’90s for Op Damask, you know, and you’d occasionally see guys
wandering around with a medal or two for that but there wasn’t much of anything else. So, we went up and we we were there to support
the lodgement of troops into East Timor and and I think we sort of did 20 odd days on station. It was enough to get a an active service medal but not enough for everything else and, we had a job to do which we did and then we peeled off. So that was my time at Anzac.
That was great, you know after that I went to frigates as an Officer of the Watch and then got selected to be a Navigating Officer and so that meant a trip up to Darwin and–
Cairns and Darwin working in patrol boats and that was obviously in the early
2000s when we were dealing a lot with you know, the illegal immigration and those sorts of things and that was a really trying time for a lot of people and the work that people were doing up there obviously involves some real human tragedy. I mean we were dealing with people who had at that stage initially fled out of you know, the Kosovo conflict and been through some pretty horrible things. And then obviously a lot of people had started coming out of the Middle East as well and you’ve got pretty young sailors who join the Navy to drive ships and do whatever who are suddenly pulling dead babies and stuff out of the water and that had a real impact on those guys and and it was a very challenging– I mean it was very rewarding, but it was– it was some tough work and as I said I think that a lot of people don’t realise what we did to some of our people up there putting them through that. So I got posted to Darwin and then
ultimately deployed with her in 2002 to what was then Op Slipper, which was the… the sanctions against Iraq, you know,
the follow-on of all the Damask stuff so Darwin and Anzac deployed in late 2002. So… we– I mean there was a big chemical
weapons threat obviously in that theatre and we… that was actually how we knew that the shooting war was about to start so we got a signal in the day before where they said,
“Look everyone’s got to be clean-shaven… …by 1800 today,” and I’d had
a beard for a very long time, “And break out all your chemical suits, your
NBCD equipment and actually pull them out of the… …the vacuum-sealed bags and make
sure that they’re all ready to go.” Now, anyone who’s been in the military for any time will know that they will not normally open up things that only have a shelf life and just leave them sitting around for too long, they don’t like to spend that many pennies so to me, that was, well if they’re ready to to burn a whole ship full of this kit They’re obviously getting pretty serious about it so we sort of thought there was
something happening and then I soon remember it was probably
about four o’clock the next morning the Office of the Watch came and woke me up so the Navigating Officer
sleeps at the back of the bridge because you’re on call all the time. So after the Officer of the Watch walked in and went “Oh you’ve got Tomahawks flying over the top of us… …and it looks like it might be on.” So basically what happened was that the
Australian ships, so ourselves and Anzac, were right up at the mouth of a river called the Khawr Abd Allah, so the KAA, and our role up until that point had been enforcing the sanctions against Iraq. So what was basically happening
was there were a bunch of dhows that would come out most nights and they were smuggling dates and smuggling oil to get hard currency for that for the Iraqi regime. So we would position ourselves basically right up at the mouth of that river and as we saw them start to come out we’d put our boarding parties in and they’d board these vessels overnight. And you’d usually start– you’d see them coming out sort of a little bit after dusk. The boarding parties who go out
and they might do, you know, 5, 10, 15, 20 boardings in a night, and they’d be out for most of the night, and turn them all around and send them back. As things sort of progressed, we we got an instruction to clear everything that was coming out of the KAA so that runs up to Umm Qasr, which is their main port, so they’d started a big information Op Campaign to say “We’re gonna come up there and
and we’re gonna go downtown on you.” This was the Americans with all their shock and all. So we’d shifted from turning
them around to clearing them. So we were putting boarding parties on and we had a 48-hour period where they said “Everything that comes through, go through it… …make sure there’s no senior
leadership, make sure there’s no… …WMD or any of that stuff.” There were special markings we used to have to paint on the side of the ship and then they could keep going. So that because by that stage there was a massive naval presence up in that part, but were right up at the front end of it. So that was those last couple of days, and then obviously that night they started with the Tomohawks. Anzac started her naval gunfire support into– into the Al-Faw Peninsula to support the Royal Marine landings. They took out the oil platforms that were astern of us, and it all just started happening from there. We were basically the air picket for Anzac, sitting on her, waiting for in
case they sent any aircraft out. We had, you know, reports that the patrol boats were coming out so we got ourselves ready to to go and, you know, engage in naval surface warfare and then the– we thought at the time unfortunately, the US Air Force sent one of their C-130s up there and took care of it for us. So… you know we had that. We had, you know, some mines, we were involved in the in the intercept of the… There was a tug that the Iraqis
had converted with a barge so that they could send it down and basically surreptitiously lay mines all down that KAA, ’cause obviously it was going to
be a pretty important piece of water. And Kanimbla, I think, were the ones that intercepted it but we he had the dive team on board so our divers went up and did the investigation on all the stuff there and basically rendered stuff safe and we were pretty involved in that, And then– and that was– it was probably four or five days of really intense activity. I seem to remember not leaving the bridge much at all for those days, I mean we were wearing body armour on the bridge in all our exposed places and the FFG Darwin, she was an older style of ship so, you know, there’s gaps and bits of air and all the rest of it but I can remember that one of the things that we were, so if the gas alarm went off, we were supposed to make sure that you know, we were all dogged down and and obviously the bridge is enclosed but the bridge roof is where all your boatswains and your lookouts and
everything are and it was basically “Oh, yeah, make sure that you’re not holding
the door open for them, that doors are shut and– and yeah, and they’re not coming in.” And I was sort of sitting there going well you know, ’cause I was probably
going to be on the bridge, you know and I had images in my head of holding the door down as sailors were madly banging on it or something, trying to come in and those sorts of things so that was that was probably one of the major
things that worried me about the whole process. We could– you could get into the Ops room and see the radar tracks of the Scud
missiles winging into Kuwait and then you could go down to the– and watch them hitting on the TV in the
wardroom and those sorts of things so it wasn’t– it wasn’t an esoteric threat, it felt very immediate. And I suppose, sort of, one of the more… It’s difficult because obviously by the time we
got to the end of it, you know everyone got through, it was all great, there were never– and we all came back and so a lot of people sort of sit there and go “Oh well, you know, it was all a bit of a cakewalk… …and you all gotta–” and you really don’t know how
it’s going to play out on the day. But I can remember sitting there thinking there’s someone out
there who doesn’t know me from a bar of soap and never will but if they had the chance, you know, would want to do
me some pretty serious harm and that’s a pretty confronting
thought process to work through, now, and it’s also a really removed one because when you’re on a ship you– you’re not charging up a hill, you’re not sitting in a hole, there’s not things raining down around you, it’s a bit more of a– it’s a background tension rather than an immediate you know, or at least it was for us and so we were– we were– yeah– and I still think that
we were– it was an element of luck, there was an element of being
pretty good at what we were doing, there was an element of maybe they
didn’t know what they were doing quite well enough, you know. Assign the percentages however you want, but you don’t really know that at the time so you sort of work through those processes. It’s very easy to sit in a very middle class, safe, Australian environment and talk about what people on the other side of the world should or shouldn’t be doing. It’s very hard to put yourself in that person’s shoes and it’s very hard to actually understand what that is until you’re confronted with it and I think that that’s what a lot of our guys do and– and it takes them a while to process it but it makes you a bit more… bit more circumspect about some of those sorts of, some of that commentary that
you’ll see around Australia. You know doesn’t make me smarter or anything like that but you sit there and go, look, you know if I had absolutely nothing, and I had my wife and my three
children who I love very much today, you know, explain to me why
you wouldn’t sell everything that you had and give yourself the best shot that you possibly could to do everything that you can for them, because, you know we live in a society where people will give you 15 reasons why they should be allowed to speed
and shouldn’t have to pay a parking ticket. Who’ll then turn around and go “Well, you’re a queue jumper
if you’re trying to get out of… …a country where your kids can’t get fresh water.” So… yeah, it’s, I think it changes your view on a few of those sorts of things. I think if I’ve picked up one thing after 21 years in the Navy is that– it’s that the systems and the way we train people and the things that we push people that do actually works and– if you make them do it. The thing that I think my my sailors have already discovered is, we don’t do things because it’s there to tick a box. We don’t do things because it’s there to
get through this assessment or whatever. We do those things because as soon as the ship leaves the wharf there is only one group of people that is responsible for what’s happening on board and 100% committed to what happens
on board. You can have all the support mechanisms you want in the world and the systems around the ship and the shore and you know, supply and all that, but when the ship leaves the wharf, there’s 185 people that are
the ones that swim home if it doesn’t work and so you have to take that personal responsibility to make sure that you can do your bit, you can drag your mate out of his bit and get them to where they need to be and that’s, in varying ways, I reinforce that one particular message every time. You know whether that be down at the fire grounds doing firefighting training, we’re not just going through this door to show that we can turn a hose on, we’re going
through this door because one day, you know there’s gonna be three of your mates lying on the deck on the other side of it and a whole room full of smoke and that’s why we do it, not because we need to tick the box. So I was deployed when my my first child was born, I was in the Middle East and we were off the coast of Pakistan actually doing those operations. I couldn’t get back, my wife was eight and
a half months pregnant the day we sailed, but my captain was mad keen ’cause he’d had children and, I really was so work-orientated I didn’t quite understand what a big deal it was. But… so my son was born and he said “Right, we’ll fly you across, we’ll get you home.” Unfortunately at the same time there was– one of the soldiers in the task group was killed in an IED strike, and so I had the– I flew back to the UAE to join a flight to meet my son, and we had to wait to get that flight while we did the ramp ceremony for this young lad. And after I posted off Stuart I went down to the Staff College and I was studying down there and I would
go to the war memorial quite a bit and I’d look at this kid’s name because he was 21 and I never knew him. I’ll never know him. But… to… For me, learning to be a parent and heading off to this incredible experience, that is a life-defining experience, this kid’s parents were going
through exactly the same thing, but it was a life-defining experience at the other end of the spectrum. And so I always make my kids put a poppy on that young lad’s name. You know, they put that there and they put it on a couple of other family members’ but… it’s… it’s a lot more immediate– It’s not about going out on Anzac Day and drinking four million cans and acting like a dickhead. It’s about sitting there and actually taking stock of the things that you can now do that other people never will and as much as I heard people say those words when I was a young kid, there’s– you’ve got to have
something get under your skin to make you actually understand what that means. I don’t know if that makes me appreciate things better or worse. I don’t necessarily think it does and I think there are some things I don’t tolerate now that I would have and there are other things I sit there and go “Really… …who cares?” But I, yeah, it’s– I think that’s the one thing that really struck with me out of that and so to then be the CO of a ship and have that trust put in you by all those parents and wives and husbands and all the rest of it and I think that the thing that– you know, you worry about the day where there’s– you turn left, your turn right, doesn’t really matter and how you’ll cope on that day. When I was– I went out and fought the fires in Australia as a junior officer and one of my lasting impressions on that was the– the impact it had on the CO of that ship and the way he spoke about his crew and those sorts of things and I think that the difficulty in being in the military is you think that you’re immortal so you’re not worried about what happens to you. You’re more worried about what happens to the person that you’re responsible for. The regret around, “Had I’d done something…” and that’s the thing that worries you more, because let’s face it, if anything serious happens to me, I deal with that but if anything serious happens to someone else, I’ve imposed that on a whole range of people: that person, their family, all sorts of things.

One comment

  1. what about some b roll pics of Josh during his career, more interesting than 19 minutes of a talking head? This video series is a great idea but.

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